Apr 9, 2019
Fancy Farms adapts to challenges in turbulent strawberry industry

Carl Grooms has seen a lot since he entered the strawberry growing business in 1974. He’s leaving the Plant City, Florida, growing operation in the hands of his son, Dustin, but has plenty of concerns about the future of the industry in which he has made his livelihood.

“People wonder why do we grow strawberries,” Grooms said in February during a visit to Fancy Farms that capped the North American Strawberry Growers Association’s (NASGA) annual meeting that was based in Orlando. “It’s because we like to eat them. We love to walk the fields and reach down and pick one we know is going to be better than the last one we tasted. It’s sort of a novelty today to be able to do that in a business that you do everyday. I couldn’t eat an eggplant, I don’t think.”

“I got old and I’m turning it over to my son, Dustin Grooms,” Carl Grooms said. “He’s the sole manager and proprietor and he’s since started spending all my money. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.”

A longtime strawberry grower in central Florida. Carl Grooms is president and cofounder of Fancy Farms, co-owned by he and his wife, Dee Dee Grooms.

“Everybody’s welcome on this farm,” Carl Grooms told the NASGA visitors. “I think since I’ve been here a million people have visited this farm. We’re sort of like an international celebrity group here. If you don’t pass off what you do, nobody will ever know what you do.”

Carl Grooms has weathered many disappointing seasons. Harvesting usually begins in November and ends by early April. During the 2016-17 season, the third-generation farmer grew 170 acres of strawberries, down from the 230 acres he grew in 2015-16. Grooms reduced acreage after selling off his main farm for development of a dry storage warehouse.

The challenges have continued during the 2018-19 season, as was related by Dustin Grooms during the recent NASGA tour.

“About Thanksgiving, we start harvesting,” Dustin said. “The last week of November we will start getting going and typically we should be picking berries the first of December almost every day. However, this season has been really different and we haven’t had fruit. Our production is half of what it normally is as of right now. The price has been stronger but it wasn’t strong enough to offset the volume.”

“We pick our rows here every three days,” Dustin said. “This year, we’ve been picking every four or five days. Normally, we pick one-third of the farm every day. This year, we’ve been picking half of the farm one day and half of the farm they next. There’s just not been any fruit out there and all of the expenses are still there. We’re still growing just as we would if there were a lot of berries.”

Varietal challenges

Radiance is a long-standing variety planted by Florida growers, but its production has slipped.

“Typically, about every 10 years the (new) variety doesn’t perform like it did in the first year or year five. We’re about 10 years out and (Radiance) is not responding like it used to,” Dustin Grooms said. “We also are planting earlier and trying to get that early market, the early yield. With the supply and demand, the price typically starts out high and just goes down and never comes back up.

“We’re trying to plant earlier and it’s so hot,” Dustin Grooms said regarding the reduced yield. “The heat this year was absolutely brutal. The temperature of that plastic is 140 degrees when we’re out there setting. We feel it really hurt the early onset. The Radiance variety makes a bullet-shaped fruit early on. It doesn’t look good. It eats just fine, but when you go to the grocery store and you see those, you’re not going to buy it.”

“Our season typically starts when we start preparing the ground here in about August, when we start tilling in a cover crop that we have planted,” Dustin Grooms said. “We’ll actually start laying plastic here about September 1. It will take us a good two weeks to lay plastic. We start planting our strawberries here about the last week of September and will drag on until about Oct. 15.

Different varieties require different planting dates, he said. “We’re probably 90 percent Florida Radiance on this farm this year. We did plant a new variety, the Florida Brilliance. It’s looking to actually replace the Radiance, probably throughout the industry this year. The numbers have been good. The taste is better. It’s a firmer berry and it’s got a crisp to it. We’re thinking on a day like today when it’s hot it’s going to hold up better than the Radiance. Our Radiance gets a little bit soft during the growing season, especially later.

“We’re excited about (Brilliance),” Dustin Grooms said. “There is a handful of other varieties that are planted here. We typically don’t put all of our eggs in one basket. We have about seven different nurseries (represented) on this farm from Idaho to California to North Carolina to Nova Scotia, Canada – all over. We do spread that out and every year it’s different with the nurserymen. They also have weather challenges. We learn things from them every year.”

Late-season obstacles

Marketing the crop becomes a significant challenge as the season begins to wind down, Dustin Grooms said.

“It’s a chess match at the end of the season,” he said. “(Retailers) call us and ask us to pick for them 20 pallets – no more. Well, I need to pick 50 pallets. What about the other blocks? Then, they will say pick until 12, pick until 3. It just gets into a big chess match and as you try to keep things logistically together at the end of the year, it just falls apart.”

Dustin Grooms said the operation plants about 3 million strawberry plants on the Plant City farm. “We typically produce about one-half million flats – that’s eight, one-pound flats of fruit. We need to plant about 3,000 plants per acre. My dad says every plant out there needs to pick $1.50 worth of fruit. It’s pretty hard to do.”

“Before the first strawberry is picked, you’ve got $10,000-$12,000 invested in that acre,” he said. “By the time you get done with harvest, you’ve got $30,000 an acre (invested). For 170 acres, you can do the math. Varieties are different. I have 52 acres that I lost 35 percent in this year.”

The operation “typically harvests around 3,000 flats per acre. We were 2,800 flats to the acre last year. The average price you need back is about $10 a flat. Along with the fresh harvest, when times go bad, Wish Farms also has a processing center. We’ll dump the fruit in a green tub. They will sell the juice. But with the labor costs for H-2A, it’s not making us any money.”

Central Florida is a bullseye for crop enemies.

“In Florida, everything grows – disease, bugs – it’s bad for everything here,” Dustin Grooms said. “We struggle with and fight everything you can imagine out there. We have a new disease out there this year and we don’t know yet what to do about it. We work closely with the University of Florida. They do a lot of research for us. We’re running three tests for them right now on this farm. We rely heavily on them for input and they do a really good job for us to find out answers to problems.”

— Gary Pullano, managing editor


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